“We wanted to work with people we were already friends with … and we wanted to make sure they understood the ethos”
Music is an ever-evolving art form and one could say that the Bad Plus have moved that trend along for more than 20 years.
With drummer Dave King and bassist Reid Anderson as the central creative nucleus, the Minneapolis jazz band has gone through three different lineup changes since its formation back in 2000. The current edition has guitarist Ben Monder and tenor saxophonist Chris Speed joining the fray, and is the band’s first time as a quartet after formerly being a trio with both Ethan Iverson and then Orrin Evans on piano.
On Feb. 25, the band will take their new sound to the stage of the Crystal Ballroom in the Somerville Theatre. The Jazz-Bins, featuring acclaimed guitarist Marc Ribot, will start off the show at 8pm.
King and I spoke ahead of the gig about how the Bad Plus’ current lineup came to be, a new album they put out last year, reimagining old tunes, and thoughts about playing with Ribot and his band.
Back in 2021, the Bad Plus started a new chapter with yourself and bassist Reid Anderson being joined by guitarist Ben Monder and tenor saxophonist Chris Speed. Both Ben and Chris were already established musicians in their own right before joining the band, so how did they both get into the fold?
Ben and Chris are musicians that we’ve actually worked with individually in other projects for many, many years. When we were thinking of people to change the lineup with, because we were really excited about the idea of changing the piano, bass and drums into a quartet with guitar and saxophone, we were making lists of people. They had these categories where it had to be people we knew, people we knew who liked the band, and most importantly liked the music. We wanted to work with people we were already friends with while not having some “new guy” energy and we wanted to make sure they understood the ethos of the band with our song-oriented compositions. Not having these long, boring solos and all of these other things in jazz and creative music that we’re not as into.
When we approached each of them, they both said “yes” immediately. I’ve played in Chris Speed’s trio for over a decade now and he’s also in a group of mine called the Dave King Trucking Company as well as a group called Broken Shadows with Tim Berne that Reid, Chris, and I were in together. We have a lot of history with Chris and we knew that if he wanted to do it that he’d be perfect with his sort of minimalist, conceptual style of saxophone playing instead of the blowhard, boss tenor style. Reid and Ben first played together in the mid ’90s, I had actually met Ben back then as well, and they did some records back then and Ben has always been in our orbit. We’re huge fans of his and his other work, so when we approached Ben and he said “yes” right away we were very excited because he’s a very likable guy.
Both Ben and Chris are old friends, so we felt like we could trust them with the vision of the band and that they would also be down with the fact that they’re coming into a band that’s been around for 22 years. They know that there’s a large history there, there’s a large responsibility, and they were up for it so that’s how we went about it. We zeroed in on them, basically and solely, after rounds of us thinking of who would work.
Last September, the four of you released a self-titled album together, so what was the experience like making it? How different was it this time around with having a guitar and saxophone adding to the rhythms you and Reid create rather than the usual piano?
Obviously, when you’re in a piano, bass, and drums trio for 22 years you have to make some adjustments as far as writing and all of these other things. For us, it was an opportunity to open up the further timbral things we could explore and also we got the ability to have unison and harmony melodies with the guitar. The only thing that we felt we weren’t able to do was playing music from our old catalog that was really piano-centric as far as how the melody would lie against a chord. We knew that we weren’t going to be able to play everything that we used to play, but we were excited about the new music and excited about what we could do with some of the older pieces. In fact, some of the older pieces that we still do with the new band are now better than they ever were.
That’s no disrespect to the great pianists that we were with, but some of it speaks more naturally with the guitar and saxophone. It’s been very fun to investigate the new pathways that we can take this music down while it still contains that DNA of the Bad Plus. The idea of the song first and more group-oriented improvising instead of it being solo-oriented with a backing band type of mentality or a leader-centric jazz mentality. We think that we were able to make a convincing evolution.
I totally agree with that from listening to the album. The album also has a New England connection to it with it being recorded by Brett Bullion and Evan Bakke at the Power Station in Waterford, Connecticut. How did you get linked up with the studio and were you guys able to work with any new equipment at the studio that you’ve never worked with before? What was it like being in that environment?
I didn’t even realize that the Power Station is an exact emulation of the original Power Station that was in New York City. It’s built with the exact specs of everything ranging from the room to the gear to everything else. In that way, knowing the legendary nature of what it was made it attractive to us. The Brett Bullion connection is from him being a Minneapolis guy so he has a connection to me in a few of the records that I’ve done and he suggested that we use that studio. We initially didn’t have the Power Station in mind, but he wanted to use it because he knows the guys who run it and he really felt that it would be a good room for us.
We ended up going with Brett’s recommendation, we brought him with us and he kind of took over the studio for the few days we were there. We enjoyed it, we enjoyed being in more of a rural environment and it was less hectic. When you record in New York City and other cities, it can have more of a hectic energy so we rented an AirBnb out in the middle of the woods and we would drive in to knock it out in this particular environment. It ended up being a very positive experience, Brett did an amazing job and it was all on him in terms of what gear and everything. It was Brett’s show on that front with what he wanted to do to create the new sound. We kind of just went with him and he’s a tremendous engineer that I’ve worked with on a couple of other projects.
He’s actually known more for working with rock bands so having that perspective was really nice. We like to use engineers that bring a larger perspective than just one type of music.
During the following December, the Bad Plus followed up the album’s release with the b-side from the sessions “Anthem For The Earnest” as a stand alone single. Was there any specific reasoning to have it released separately from the album?
It’s actually an old song of ours, so that was the reason to not have it on the album. We re-recorded a few older pieces from when we were a piano trio that we were really excited about and if you know the band’s oeuvre you know that “Anthem For The Earnest” is one of our more popular original pieces. We thought that it would be fun to re-record it with the new lineup to have as one of a few things to just drop in this new way of digitally releasing music. The ability to throw little pieces of candy out there and have fans who would be excited about this new spin on the old music like we do live. At least three or four songs in our live set are from the old music, so we’ve peppered in some of the favorites we’ve always loved to play along with the new material.
That was the mentality behind that. We thought it would be fun after a few months to drop a new version of an old tune out there.
This upcoming show at the Crystal Ballroom is one of two gigs with The Jazz-Bins featuring Marc Ribot as part of the Bad Plus’ current tour. With this being said, can folks who attend expect something different than the typical Bad Plus show? Will there be any live collaboration between bands or will you guys and Marc’s band just be playing separate sets?
It’ll just be two different bands playing two different sets. Marc is going to do his set, we’re going to do our set and we’re not going to change our set based on Marc being there or his great group. We love Marc, we love his music and we’re excited to do a double bill with him, that’s pretty much what it is. It’s sort of like coupling together two groups that have a unique, original sound. Obviously, we’re going to be doing what we’ve been doing on the road with the new quartet so people can expect to see us in the new configuration while playing new and old music while also seeing an incredible musician in Marc Ribot.
It’s a co-bill, there isn’t really an opener and headliner. Marc is one of the great genius guitar improvisers in history so we’re super, super proud to be doing some double bills with him.
The Bad Plus @ Crystal Ballroom
Rob Duguay is an arts & entertainment journalist based in Providence, RI who is originally from Shelton, CT. Outside of DigBoston, he also writes for The Providence Journal, The Connecticut Examiner, The Newport Daily News, Worcester Magazine, New Noise Magazine, Northern Transmissions and numerous other publications. While covering mostly music, he has also written about film, TV, comedy, theatre, visual art, food, drink, sports and cannabis.